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State of denial

All the election talk was about a government that did big things. But such ambitions will never be credible until we are ready to pay for them

Amid the many known unknowns of the election result, there are two overwhelming certainties. The first is that Whitehall faces—as Gus O’Donnell describes overleaf—a daunting couple of years, with Brexit dominating its workload. The second is that both the referendum and now the general election have revealed a yearning for a more active, engaged and effective state to alleviate social grievances and tackle the challenge of an ageing population.

Certainly, that is the message that Theresa May took from the heavy “Leave” votes across Britain’s depressed regions a year ago. She swore to use the muscle of government to lighten the load on the “just about managing,” and her manifesto stressed industrial activism and disavowed the Thatcherite belief in “untrammelled free markets.” It was a platform that won her 42.4 per cent of the UK-wide vote, exactly matching Thatcher’s landslide-winning score in 1983. May, however, came back to a hung parliament because of a stunning surge in support for Labour on the back of a manifesto which the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes would have got the state more “deeply involved” in the private sector than it has been for a long time—“certainly since the 1970s, and perhaps since the 1940s.” Taken together, fully 82.4 per cent of voters backed May’s newly-interventionist Tories and Jeremy Corbyn’s more full-throated big government dirigisme. And that is the highest combined share of the two parties in many years. Britain, then, now wants a large and active state. The big and unanswered question, however, is whether it any longer has the capacity to be one.

That question—can the British state provide what is now asked of it—has not gone away simply because a weakened prime minister has found it convenient to proclaim to her unhappy backbenchers that austerity is over, without being at all clear what she means by that. It is a question that remains urgent. And it is the central theme of Dismembered: How the Attack on the State Harms Us All, a new book by Polly Toynbee and David Walker. The authors describe a public realm hobbled by the long slog of retrenchment, and deeply confused by constant re-organisation and the contracting-out of public services. It’s an angry book and one that captures an inconvenient truth: that British ministers of all persuasions are typically in a hurry to make a mark through shaking things up. Indeed, even back in the good years, when New Labour was ploughing in extra resources, its ministers thought that whatever they did had to create enough sound and fury for the public to notice they were doing something. If not, they worried that the public would never credit them with any improvement. More recently ministers have tinkered with one hand, while with the other they have swung the axe. Compulsive fiddling has become an easy alternative to facing up to what it would cost to give the public the services they expect.

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In Prospect’s July issue: Steve Richards, Rachel Sylvester and Shiv Malik—as well as Chris Hanretty and Julian Glover—cover the fallout from the recent general election. Richards looks at how the assumptions of centrist politics were upended and how Labour managed to stun the nation—a point that Chris Hanretty explores in more detail, explaining how Corbyn turned the tide for social democracy. Sylvester questions how Theresa May managed to squander her majority—Julian Glover says it wasn’t just May’s failure, the ideas were flawed, too. Shiv Malik explores the remarkable surge in the youth vote and says parties can no longer ignore their concerns. Also in this issue: Dexter Dias argues that to understand terrorism we need to better understand human nature, Paul Wallace looks at the state of the state and asks whether the government is capable of fulfilling large scale changes to the way the state works and Sam Tanenhaus profiles Mike Pence—should we be worried about him becoming the next president?